New Snow Hill High Project Funds Not In Budget

SNOW HILL — Though the loose timeline for the eventual renovation of Snow Hill High School (SHHS) remains unaltered, one Worcester County Commissioner voted against this year’s budget because it didn’t include any new funding set aside for the project.

“I am very disappointed that Snow Hill High School wasn’t included … For the second time in 14 years, I’m not voting for [the budget],” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley Tuesday.

The budget eventually did pass 5-2 despite Shockley’s opposition, though he claims to be flabbergasted as to how funding that would allow the county to go to the bond market this year did not make it into the plan.

“This should have been a very simple request,” he said.

Shockley explained that he wasn’t seeking full funding for the more than $40 million SHHS renovation project, but instead only wanted enough money designated so that the county would be able to go to the bond market to secure funding for the project if it looked like bond interest rates were about to jump.

By setting aside a small amount of funding that would be used for interest-only payments, most likely under $1 million, Shockley argued that Worcester would be in a strong position to go to the market while rates were low if they anticipated a jump. He called the money a “safety net” for the county.

“Inflation, at some point, is going to kick in,” he said.

However, other members of the commission weren’t as concerned as Shockley that Worcester is giving up its only shot to get decent interest rates.

“I think we’re being prudent,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “We’re moving ahead.”

For Shockley’s fears to come true and bond interest rates to rise, the economy would most likely need to show significant signs of recovery.

“If the economy starts to get better and jobs come back, we’re going to be bidding against ourselves,” he said.

While optimistic that the economy will improve eventually, Boggs explained that she wasn’t willing to try to estimate to what extent, if any, and that setting aside money in this year’s budget that could be used to secure bonds for the SHHS project would be “a gamble.”

There could also be complications if the county jumped the gun and went to the bond market too early.

“You don’t want to be stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Boggs said.

She pointed out that once a bond is secured the clock begins ticking on how long it can be held before a project begins. If held too long, there are repercussions.

“There are significant penalties,” she said.

Because the timeline on SHHS renovations is not set in stone, Boggs said she worried a rush to the bond market could put Worcester in a difficult spot, especially if approval for the project gets tied up at the state level.

By setting aside money, all Worcester would be doing is leaving itself the option to go to the bond market if the atmosphere became favorable, according to Shockley.

Setting aside money is this year’s budget was not about speeding up the process, Shockley continued. It would have just served as a “placeholder” in the event interest rates began to climb, he said.

“It was never about speeding the project up. It was about having the money to lock in at a decent rate,” said Shockley, adding that because of the lengthy state process there really isn’t a way to “speed up” the renovations at this point, though they could very easily be slowed down.

Perhaps the most frightening thing, in Shockley’s opinion, is that more funding wasn’t put in the budget for SHHS even though there was a 7-cent property tax rate increase.

“Basically you raise taxes 7 cents and you didn’t include Snow Hill [High School] as a project,” he said.

Shockley questioned that if funding for SHHS wasn’t included in the budget during a tax rate increase budget, where would the money for the project come from.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes confirmed this week the plan is still to pursue the SHHS project when the window opens at the state level again in the fall.

“The plan is for the Board of Education to seek construction approval from the County Commission … We’ll be approaching the County Commissioners during their first meeting in October,” Andes said.

If the Board of Education receives approval, the next step will be to go to the state. In Shockley’s estimation, the soonest he expects to see shovels in the ground for the renovation would be the fall of 2014, a timeline that Boggs stated she would like to see as well, assuming funding is available. She did point out that the commission has shown commitment in the form of $1.6 million previously set aside for designs.

Shockley admitted that not having funding designated in this year’s budget for the bond market was in no way a deal breaker and if interest rates do explode, money can likely be scrounged together. But he compared that process to “an Easter egg hunt” and said he was genuinely baffled over his colleagues’ decision.

“There’s a lot of talk and not much action,” he said of the SHHS renovations.